Skyfire (The Summer King Chronicles #2)

Title: Skyfire

Author: Jess E. Owen

Series: The Summer King Chronicles #2

Shard can’t afford to linger on the islands he’s known all his life. The Aesir came from over the sea, and knowing the reason for that long quest might provide the way for him to break through Sverin’s ever more despotic rule. But he also has the destiny of the Summer King to wrestle with. No one can tell him any more than the old song, a song known by many different species. If Shard is to be a king, how? If he is destined to unite the pride, how can he do it without perpetuating the cycle of war?

It’s a rare series whose second book is better than the first, but this is one of them. Shard’s tale interweaves with the story of those he left behind, and, surprisingly, neither one drags. Shard’s growing happiness contrasts against the growing misery of the rest, but both of them have incredible challenges that seem insurmountable.

I liked getting to know a new set of gryfons. Shard has a chance to see how a pride might look when it isn’t isolated and pushing hard for its own survival. There’s still dysfunction, but overall it’s a much healthier place. I particularly liked Asvander. He’s a little more than he appears, but it’s also true Shard’s own emotions cause him to misjudge him.

Also fun was seeing Shard interact with both eagles and lions. The various races all have their own flavor of legend, and although they seem to have an almost universal dislike of gryfons, there’s a lot of commonalities too.

Overall this continues to be an engaging fantasy with strong characters, hard choices, and plenty of surprises. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Song of the Summer King (The Summer King Chronicles #1)

Title: Song of the Summer King

Author: Jess E. Owen

Series: The Summer King Chronicles #1

Shard is a young gryfon eager to prove himself—for as one of the conquered Vanir, he has extra reasons to be cautious of his Aesir king, who hates the Vanir. Not that Shard remembers the Conquering, which happened when he was a kit. But Shard is soon drawn into a web of conflicting loyalties, and he will have to decide where his heart truly lies. . .

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and finally got around to it since the first book showed up free. I never did get over my dislike of how gryfon is spelled (despite this being one word that has about a dozen legitimate spellings), but the story was very good.

There aren’t any humans or human variants here. Shard is a gryfon, and the various other races he meets includes wolves, ravens, and so on. I liked that a lot, since it meant the story could focus on characters with wings and claws and fur and feather. It doesn’t overdescribe the gryfons or their way of life, but the details are plentiful and immersive.

I liked Caj, and how he wasn’t at all who I expected (or who Shard expected, come to that). I liked the different tribes of Vanir and Aesir, and how they value different approaches to life, and how Shard seems to be the only one able to see good in both sides, which makes him feel caught between choosing one path or the other. The Aesir did horrible things to the Vanir, true enough, but for all that Shard recognizes they aren’t necessarily evil. I liked that the tribes are also physically different, which leads to some interesting contrasts between Shard and his wingbrother.

And then the end had to go and tangle everything up. Not that it was a bad ending—but it changes everything for Shard, and who he thinks he is, and who he chooses to become. He’s just not there yet. The next books should be interesting indeed. I rate this book Recommended.

The Harbors of the Sun (Raksura #5)

Title: The Harbors of the Sun

Author: Martha Wells

Series: Raksura #5

The Raksura are furious. And afraid. Jade, Moon, and a handful of others left the Reaches to prevent the frightening dreams and visions no one could understand—and instead may have caused them. Now on the trail of the Hians who betrayed them all, they can only struggle to recapture what was lost, and hope they aren’t too late.

This finishes out the duology that started in The Edge of Worlds, though it has some interesting ties back to the earlier Raksura books as well.

Like the other Raksura books, this one features a plethora of strange cities and alien races. I like the hints of earlier eras mingled with later, like ruins other races repurposed for their own ends. And the glimpses blend very naturally into the story. Moon is on a journey, but the story has additional threads with Jade, with Bramble and Merit, and with the court of Indigo Cloud they all left behind.

I like the characters a lot, too. It’s so amusing to see Pearl and Malachite finally meet: two feared/respected reigning queens with very strong opinions who aren’t used to anyone telling them no. It’s interesting to see how Stone and Moon, despite both being well-traveled, are so different in their approach to other cultures. And of course the half-Fell queen that nobody has any idea how to handle.

I also appreciated not only Jade’s choice near the end, but how efficiently she makes it. She knows exactly what’s at stake and acts first, knowing she’ll have a chance to think about the consequences later.

Although the end neatly closes out the duology, this is a rich world that would easily support more stories. I’ve always enjoyed my time in this world and this book continues that. I rate this book Recommended.

Sword of the Stranger (Movie)

Title: Sword of the Stranger

Content warning: There’s a ton of blood, but not really any gore. Also a few brief scenes of someone under torture.

Kotaro is a young boy on the run. With only his faithful canine companion, Tobimaru, he struggles to avoid the soldiers after him. Then a chance encounter with a nameless samurai offers him hope of returning to a place of safety.

I watched this streaming, and liked it so much I immediately ordered a copy. This isn’t a particularly deep movie, but it’s a lot of fun. Kotaro is stubborn and a bit high and mighty, but he’s also frightened of the soldiers and loves his dog very deeply. Tobimaru alternates between being cute and rising up to defend his master however the situation requires (the scene of him riding in a sling was just adorable). And the nameless man is an excellent swordsman who struggles with the memories of the war he left behind. The journey changes all of them.

On the enemy side, we have the native Japanese who are suspicious (but supportive, for now) of a group of Chinese who are building some grand project. Of particular note is a blond-haired, blue-eyed man the Chinese brought with them, who hungers to fight a worthy opponent. (The comments about him being a barbarian and a demon are perhaps not intended to be jokes, but I found them very funny. No assumption of blond-haired, blue-eyed innocence here.)

Also the hostage situation is one of my favorite parts of the film.  I love when these kinds of things go sideways since so many stories play it straight.

Because the Funimation stream doesn’t offer the Japanese, I can only comment on the English dub, which was very good. Aside from one secondary character whose introductory lines were a weird monotone, everyone had top-notch voice acting. I was especially impressed with Kotaro and the nameless samurai. Kids in anime can sometimes sound a bit weird, but Aiden Drummond really nailed Kotaro. And Michael Adamthwaite did a great job breathing life into No-Name. I also really liked that the dub kept the Chinese portions intact (Funimation’s stream, at least, shows subtitles on these parts). Since the Japanese don’t understand what the Chinese are muttering to themselves, it’s nice to have the foreign language to reinforce that.

Overall this is perhaps a bit too eager to throw around lots of blood splatters, but is otherwise a movie I plan to show my friends. I rate this Recommended.

Brokedown Palace

Title: Brokedown Palace

Author: Steven Brust

Four brothers live in a crumbling Palace. When Miklós, the youngest, butts heads with his eldest brother László, he finds himself walking straight into myths. But though he journey all the way to Faerie, his heart and his destiny are with his home. Only Miklós seems willing to admit the Palace is rotting. Yet he has no idea what he’s supposed to do about it.

This was an odd book. I liked the way it balances between myth and fact, often muddling the two so much that it’s not clear where any lines ought to be drawn. The Palace is both itself and a symbol of many things, primarily the old, broken, and decaying. I liked the Palace, too. The little details about various things going wrong is almost comical in places, because the King is so determined to just keep on with his everyday life he can ignore gaping holes in the floor.

The complex relationships between the four brothers is also more of a literary bent. The story doesn’t follow events as much as the twists and turns of those relationships, as Miklós tries to escape László, then re-integrate into some kind of family (which is troublesome because he and his eldest brother have polar opposite views on some critical things, and both of them aren’t willing to give any ground). There are also two women, one that László takes as a whore and one he intends to wed, who are themselves set against each other as foils.

The problem for me is that all this literary stuff isn’t nearly as interesting as even my least favorite Vlad Taltos book. This book isn’t often funny, or full of action, and the nods to the wider world it shares with the Vlad books are either incidental or rather subtle (for instance, Brigitta’s end very obscurely ties to a familiar character, but it took out-of-book author confirmation to say for sure as the reference could have also referred to just about anything).

Overall, this will probably appeal more to those who like diving into complex family relationships and spotting various bits of symbolism. For myself, I don’t think I’m going to read it again, but I don’t mind having read it once. I rate this book Neutral.

The Secret Country (The Eidolon Chronicles #1)

Title: The Secret Country

Author: Jane Johnson

Series: The Eidolon Chronicles #1

Ben’s plans to get himself a pair of Mongolian Fighting Fish only last as long as it takes him to save up the money. At the pet store, a cat insists on being taken home instead—and since Ben has never heard a talking cat, he gives in. Little did he suspect he had encountered the fringes of something much bigger. Another world exists alongside our own. A world of magic. A world in trouble. A world that needs Ben to help it . . .

This was a bit too young and straightforward for my tastes, but it was still a decent story. There’s no complexity to the villains or the heroes: once you’ve met someone, you can easily tell which side that person is on. (Amusingly, the only exception is Ben’s sister, but she’s not a major part of the story.)

I did like the variety of mythological creatures. There are dragons, of course, but also selkies and dryads and Gabriel’s Hounds. I particularly liked the twists in how the selkie was presented. That made much more sense than the whole sealskin thing.

I also liked that the whole destiny card doesn’t give Ben a free pass. He’s still himself, with his only real ability apparently being able to talk to magical creatures, which is something a lot of people share.

On the other hand, Ben doesn’t do a whole lot either. Mostly he’s enabling or directing others to do most of the work. I would hope a future book would involve more of his own deeds and not just the help of his friends.

All in all this sets up for a series, but the story wraps up well enough in the first book to have something that feels like an ending. I doubt I’ll continue just because it feels a little younger than the stuff I enjoy, but it isn’t a bad book. I rate this book Neutral.

Knights of the Borrowed Dark (Knights of the Borrowed Dark #1)

Title: Knights of the Borrowed Dark

Author: Dave Rudden

Series: Knights of the Borrowed Dark #1

Denizen Hardwick is an orphan. Unlike the stories, he’s not expecting a grand destiny or secret power to claim him. He knows where he is, who he is, and what his future is likely to hold. Then an aunt he never suspected he had shows up to claim him—and he encounters creatures of a darkness beyond this world who would destroy him . . .

This was fun on so many levels.

First, it’s incredibly self-aware of the various genre tropes that tend to crop up in books like these, and there are often little winks skewering concepts even while embracing some of them. Orphaned children discovering secret societies and great power—where have we heard that before? Right. But the fact that the story knows well enough where it’s going, and where others have gone, to poke fun at things lends an air of amusement to the whole thing. Even when it’s uncovering the fact that most of the secret world is really nasty and populated with extremely competent and deadly people who exist to stamp out the really nasty bits.

“Right,” Denizen said. “I thought this place was actually haunted or something.”
“Oh, not at all,” Darcie said brightly. “It’s just in constant danger of falling into the dark end of the universe.”
She frowned. “That’s not better, is it?”

Or bits like:

Three. Three near-death experiences. Was that a lot? How did they ever get anything done?

The horror and the humor work really well together. I can’t really read horror unless it’s screamingly funny, because something about the darkness sharpens the jokes. I loved the Tenebrae and the various bits of it that Denizen encounters. I loved the power and the Cost, and the deeper implications of it may be unstated for now but like Denizen is warned early on, there’s clearly a limit to what they can do.

“Rescue you,” Denizen said again in the same annoyed tone. “I’m here to save you from the Clockwork Three. Not”—he kicked some files out of the way—“that I’m expecting a thank-you or anything. With the kind of day I’ve been having, I expect you’ll try to kill me when I free you. Everyone else has. It won’t even be difficult. I’ve had about”—he half slid down another drift of folders, barely catching himself from pitching headlong into the circle—“ten minutes’ training since this whole debacle started.”


And the characters are so good. I liked Simon a lot, and how he proves so unexpectedly resourceful. I like his friendship with Denizen and how the two of them compliment each other. I loved Denizen’s caution, skepticism, sarcasm, and attachment to having things familiar and predictable. All of the Order that he meets is awesome in his or her own way.

It’s also well-written at a sentence level. The language is often playful, often beautiful. But the book isn’t so in love with turning a phrase that it doesn’t read swiftly. I chewed through it in one day but I think I’m going to read it again, to better appreciate the little details.

Overall this was a lot of fun, and I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series. I can’t wait to see how Denizen’s last choices change things going forward, and what happens with certain other characters I liked quite a bit. I rate this book Highly Recommended.